The assassination of John F. Kennedy has created a mini-genre all of its own down the years. Movies such as The Parallax View, though heavily influenced by the tragedy, used it as the inspiration for a fictional assassination, while others fictionalised the assassination, elements of it, or the circumstances surrounding it. Amongst these are Charles McCarry’s novel Tears of Autumn, Don DeLillo’s Libra and, of course, perhaps the best of them all, James Elroy’s Underworld USA trilogy.
Of course, this is is just a taste of the JFK assassination’s treatment in film (I haven’t even mentioned Oliver Stone’s film, JFK), television, and literature and the canon includes works which focus entirely on the assassination, to those that use it more as a backdrop. Lou Berney’s November Road is very much of the latter. While the assassination of Kennedy is integral to the plot, it is not central to it in the same way that it is to some other works. This isn’t a JFK conspiracy thriller as such, more one that uses the assassination and the conspiracy that surrounded it (in the novel there was a conspiracy, Lee Harvey Oswald having been a patsy) to drive the narrative forward.
Frank Guidry is a fixer for the New Orleans mob, a go-to guy for fearsome mobster Carlos Marcello. Guidry was asked to drive a car to Dallas. After the assassination, he puts two and two together and realises that the car had been used as a getaway vehicle for the real assassin. Guidry is scared, the assassination being audacious even for the mafia, in fact, it borders on the recklessly dangerous. When others who know about the plot start to die, Guidry guesses that Marcello is tying off loose ends and goes on the run.
Guidry meets a woman and her daughter who have fled a life of suffocatingly cloistered domesticity. He charms her so that he can travel with them, reasoning that whoever Marcello has sent after him will be looking for a man travelling alone, not a man with a family. But as they travel across America, he starts to develop real feelings for them.
November Road is in actual fact a road trip novel. The Kennedy assassination, Marcello’s determination to sew up loose ends, the hitman he sets on his erstwhile employee’s trail, all drive the narrative forward and give momentum to Guidry’s journey. The characterisation in the novel is top-notch. The contract killer is chilling, the mother and daughter touching and vulnerable, though not in a saccharine clichéd way. But most of all this is Guidry’s story. Much is said in creative writing workshops about a character’s arc, and November Road is a study in how to do craft such an arc well. Guidry goes from selfish womaniser to caring partner and father figure, though tragedy is signposted from the start and its obvious that things can’t end well. This is all down incredibly adeptly and this change in Guidry’s outlook, this transformation he experiences, is convincing.
November Road is a brilliant novel. Part JFK conspiracy thriller, but mainly a road trip undertaken by a desperate man, this is a definite five star read.
James Pierson 5/5
November Road by Lou Berney
HarperCollins 9780008309336 pbk Apr 2019